Smarter public services

February 25, 2010

Imagine my surprise at opening the latest New Statesman, 22 February 2010, and finding an advertisement for ‘Big Blue’ i.e. IBM, entitled “Smarter public services for a smarter planet.” I can’t imagine why IBM are targeting left-of-centre politicians, perhaps a rare breed in the 21st century?

Included on the advertisement  from IBM is a link to a website where there is a PDF of a report entitled “IBM’s response to “Digital Britain – Online Public Services are a proxy for Digital Britain” dated March 2009, promoting amongst other things, the South West One partnership that has suffered a few problems to date, as reported by Computer Weekly and others. Having been involved in a complex public- private partnership myself they have my sympathy, but isn’t it too early to crow?

In general, however, the eight-page report is pretty sensible including the statement – “Apply the 80/20 rule: build for 80% of the customer circumstances and ignore the minority of exceptions that create disproportionate complexity and cost. Target services and educate customers to minimise the likelihood of exceptions occurring. Handle exceptions through appropriate existing off-line channels.”

It appears we are starting to learn and that electronic channels aren’t the answer for everything and will have to retain the others for those who will not or cannot use them, or for the inappropriate services.

The topic of e-government and partnerships was one covered by my academic acquaintance Paul Henman in his 2004 paper: Henman, P. (2004). “E-government and the Electronic Transformation of Modes of Rule: The Case of Partnerships.” Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics 2(2): 19-24. where he concludes that “Partnerships require a lot of organisational, relationship and technical work to establish and maintain. They require that all partners continue to extract mutual benefits from the partnership and maintain levels of trust. As such partnerships constantly need to be made and re-made.” So remember as well, it’s not all down to ICT!


A new start

January 10, 2010

How can legislation create local government shared services? The proposal for legislation to enforce them is presented in a new report from Deloitte entitled “Stop, start, save – Shared service delivery in local government.” The report does admit that there are a lot of questions, it also admits sharing could initially focus around administrative systems like payroll and financial administration. However, overall, I don’t think there’s anything new in its twelve pages that I haven’t fallen over in the last ten years.

But what are the stumbling blocks in IT terms? I can add a few issues that Deloitte haven’t reported, that I don’t think can be resolved by legislation, only by concerted action by local authorities and government.

Even where common IT systems are employed, many software suppliers are obviously unwilling to lose revenue and hence don’t encourage sharing or don’t design their systems to permit easy sharing, unless of course, it is through some sort of additional shared services layer, that brings in greater revenue.

From my own experience of shared services there are a few minor points –

How are they delivered electronically so that citizens can still find them where they expect them to be? This may include branding or local data sharing issues. In other words, is the data split or can it be easily?

What about the politicians? Do they understand the implications and if so are they supportive?

What about the staff who behave like politicians? Do they really understand or just don’t want ‘change’? If they don’t want to change, what are you going to do?

The way forward is surely to align back office processes and align back office IT applications (it’s a lot easier if staff are used to seeing the same screens along with processing in the same way). It’s a big market out there and suppliers won’t like giving up to a competitor, so expect a fight.

Which of several applications to use? Surely go for the best in price and offering, but pull any three council’s out of a hat and they’ll all run a different application and won’t want to change. So there is a need to assess which really is the best application in the longer term (say five or ten years) for the three authorities. Which supplier will work best to get all three on the same quality platform for minimal costs in short and long term? The users need to be involved closely in this decision, they’re the ones that use it! This may even involve citizens, if there’s a web interface. But make sure that this is really researched. Imagine what happens if one authority uses Microsoft 200x and the other 200y, even if they run the same back office application, there’s yet another big cost and training budget to account for.

Instead, I suggest – start thinking ahead, stop buying different suppliers and start saving on procurement, support, training; in other words – get ready to start sharing.

This was all summed up my acquaintance Paul Henman in 2004 – E-government and the Electronic Transformation of Modes of Rule: The Case of Partnerships, The Journal on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics,  pp 19-24, where he concluded that: 

“the advent of the Internet has precipitated a growth in governing through partnerships. Materially, the Internet has made it technically more feasible to conduct extensive partnerships. But, arguably the Internet’s main contribution towards governing through partnerships is symbolic. It has been in helping to imagine what networked governing might look like, and thus contributed to the formation of rationalities of network governance.”

In other words, the IT only helps you think you can do partnerships, the real effort is on and from people and systems!